Lambs-tails in winter

These days we are managing the wood to support the precious population of hazel dormice that it contains. Since the year 2000, the British population of dormice has fallen by a tragic 50%, and our wood is now part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme which is trying to work out what has gone so very wrong and how things can be put right.

Traditionally, dormice are animals of hazel coppice and an understanding of the biology of hazel would be helpful for us to manage our coppices in the most effective way for dormice. At this time of year, flamboyant catkins are dangling from the hazel branches and shivering in the breezes:

These catkins are widely known as lambs-tails

These are the male structures of the tree. Every catkin is made up of about two hundred and forty small male flowers, each covered by a triangular bract. Beneath a single bract are four stamen, each with two yellow pollen-producing anthers. Since every anther produces nine thousand grains of pollen, by my reckoning a catkin will therefore produce over seventeen million pollen grains, a number sure to make any hayfever sufferer wince. Once these male flowers open up in the late winter, the pollen is carried off by the wind and, because the trees have no leaves at the moment, it can be freely wafted throughout the tree without impediment.

But hazel is monoecious, having both male and female flowers on the same tree. In the photo above, there is a little bud where the catkins join the branch – this is the female part. The bud contains anything from four to fourteen female flowers, each with two red styles which are the only things that protrude from the bud.

Male and female flowers

These female flowers can only be pollinated by pollen from a different hazel tree but, once one is, it will develop into a nut to feed the dormice in the late summer. The nuts are produced in a cluster at the site of the female flower bud and the number in the cluster will depend on how many female flowers within the bud got themselves pollinated.

Sometimes the female bud is at the top of the catkins like this, but they are also found along the branch looking very much like leaf buds until you look closer

Now that we understand all of this, it will be interesting to watch nut development as the year progresses to see if we can draw conclusions on which trees are producing nuts well and why that is.

This area of the wood has old hazel coppice and we noticed that catkins are only being produced right at the very tops of the crowns here. As well as that, the coppices are so bulky that they are shading the ground so that no understorey grows. This is not ideal because the fruits and flowers of the understorey are an important food source for dormice along with the hazel nuts We don’t know when this section was last coppiced but an ideal coppicing cycle for dormouse is every fifteen to twenty years, trying to create small mosaics of cut coppice alongside more established areas and leaving the cut material on site as hibernation habitat. My feeling is that we should try to coppice this section next winter

Following our concerns that the new pond was unsafe for wildlife with the liner creating slippery edges, some major health and safety improvements have now been made:

There is now a pebble beach at the shallow end and several exit ramps sticking into the water. The green corrugated roofing square is not pretty but does increase the water catchment area of the pond which will help to keep it filled in the summer.

We have recently cleared the squirrel nest out of the tawny owl box but I suppose it was only to be expected that the squirrels would start to rebuild in there again:

Sadly, since the box has been cleared, there haven’t been any further signs of an owl showing interest. There was a tawny down at one of the ponds though:

At the same pond this week there has been a sparrowhawk….

…a woodcock…

….and the return of the fieldfares that always arrive in the wood in late winter:

Over in the meadows, I realised that the twenty or so nest boxes were yet to be cleared out and this job needed to be done before nesting begins once more. I wonder what calamity resulted in the abandonment of this lovely clutch of eggs?

There were, however, five other bird nests that looked like they had overseen the successful fledging of all their chicks. It is very normal to find fluff from the dogs pink and yellow balls incorporated into the nests here:

One box had a mouse nest in it and so I left it alone:

This next box dangles on a wire three meters up in a hawthorn tree. Although it does sway around a bit, it is very popular and is used by blue tits every year. I found that it did indeed contain an old bird nest but there was now a wood mouse nest on top, complete with the little animal snugly curled up within. I closed this box back up and left it too:

Elsewhere in the meadows there is a brand new 2023 nest under construction and it’s a large one. Magpie nests are robust and are sometimes reused, particularly in urban areas. But the magpies here build a new nest every year, although usually very high up and obscured from our view. Happily, though, we can see this years new-build from the house:

A magpie nest under construction in a hawthorn tree, just up from the centre of the photograph. Once the tree gets its leaves the nest will be more difficult to see, of course
A digiscoped photo from the house of the pair of magpies and their nest. Deal pier and the white cliffs of Ramsgate look so close in the background in this image

The completed structure will have a domed roof for protection and there will be one or two entrances in. Both birds work on the nest, with the male primarily responsible for the walls and roof and the female for lining the inside with mud.

A finished magpie nest is quite a structure. Photo: Bengt Nyman under CC attribution 2.0 generic license

Other interesting photos from the meadows this week:

An action shot of house sparrows up on the strip
Chuckles the male herring gull and his chick from last year. No sign of his mate so far this year, the colour-ringed gull X9LT – I am watching closely for her now
A firecrest visits the baking tray bath
The camera at the hide pond was misted up but we all know what this is. I am delighted to announce that this visiting heron was not seen on the cameras at the wild pond, which is where the frogs are starting to gather prior to spawning. Mackenzie the scarecrow is on duty down there and it looks like he might be doing his job effectively

A few days ago I noticed that something was going on with the mate of the One-eyed Vixen. He wasn’t opening his left eye properly and in the infrared his fur seemed wet on that side. It is only now that I see him by day, do I realise that he has been injured. Many years ago my cat seemed ill and I took him to the vets, only to eventually discover that he had several pellets in him. My immediate thought now was that this fox had also been shot but, looking closely at other photos, I see that the cut is long and jagged like he ran into barbed wire perhaps.

Infection is always a worry but I am comforted that, now several days on, he still seems alright and long may that continue.

We have builders starting this month, with work expected to take six months. They are demolishing our ancient old garage at the top of the garden and building a new, two-storey one, complete with wildlife tower, rainwater collection system and solar panels. They are also removing the greenhouse which is attached to the house, building a utility room on its footprint and knocking a door through. We have been busy preparing for all this upheaval by clearing out the existing garage, two other sheds and the greenhouse, all of which are going.

Getting this temporary garage erected in the meadows by the hide pond was a daunting prospect but actually proved to be quite fun. Let’s hope it is sturdy enough to withstand the winds we get here

As well as this temporary garage, we have also built a small polytunnel to give a home to the tender plants evicted from the greenhouse. The normal pattern of our lives is going to be disrupted for the next few months and no doubt there are many challenges lying ahead, but our eyes are focussed on how good it will all be when it is finished.

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